With the shrinking economy and ever-shrinking budgets, churches are learning to do more with less. Many churches have been forced to make cutbacks and tough decisions about what programs and services stay and what goes. An area that cannot be cut back, however, is that of church security and background checks.
The country has seen a string of security breaches at houses of worship such as the attack at a Tennessee church during a children's play in 2008 and the kidnapping of an infant by a volunteer in Michigan in June of 2009. With the usual "open door policy" of most churches, a security plan must be put in place to protect the church and congregants. The importance of the interview processes and comprehensive background checks are the focus of this article, the first of a three-part series on church security.
Security experts agree that background checks are a top priority for churches. Steve Durie, President and CEO of SecureSearch, based in Castle Rock, CO states, "Though the government does not stipulate that background checks are ‘required,' a church can still be sued and charged with negligent hiring or negligent retention of a paid staff member or an unpaid volunteer if their screening process was inadequate and a repeat offender made their way in."
Churches have both a legal and moral responsibility to their members to screen anyone supporting or providing services to their congregation. The church can be held liable under the law if negligent hiring practices and a lack of "reasonable care" can be proven in court. So how do churches get the information they need, without offending an applicant, wasting time or wasting money?
The first thing that churches need to know is that where security is concerned, there are few limits to what you should be willing to do to ensure quality applicants are being hired. Jason Johnston, Founder and CEO of CIA (Clear Investigative Advantage), based in Dallas, TX states, "If money were no object, all checks should be required in order to know everything you can about your employees and volunteers. Realistically speaking, optional searches could be based on role and responsibility." Any applicant that understands church culture and the need for safety will understand and be willing to undergo a background check, whether they are new hires or current staff. Steve Durie of SecureSearch suggests a focused effort for recurring screenings. "All staff and volunteers that have a trusted position with children, youth or special needs adults need to be screened. Searches should be conducted annually to look for any criminal activity." With that in mind, when a church is beginning to implement the use of background checks, they should actually start with the current staff and continue the process with all new hires and volunteers. Durie also suggests that a church start with the leadership "to show buy-in from the top." This will assure everyone on staff that no one is exempt from the new background check system. These checks are not meant to be an invasion of privacy, but an assurance that your church offers a safe and secure environment for everyone.
Make Background Checks Church Policy
Adopting a new hire policy that includes background checks helps churches put in place a policy of security and consistency. Most important, the same process should be used for all potential church staff and volunteer candidates. If your administration feels that the screening of volunteers should be different or more lenient than the screening of potential staff, that is certainly plausible, but the processes should be well-outlined and used campus-wide for both current and potential staff and volunteers. Durie warns, "Make sure that whatever you decide to do is legal, compliant, and fair and equitable across the board." Variations and "exceptions to the rule" can potentially cause trouble in the long run. Let all applicants know from the beginning that at a certain point, everyone is screened. Many churches do background checks for potential staff or volunteers working with youth or with church funds, but screening only these people could be a mistake. Every person serving with the church has the potential to interact with the congregation and should, therefore, be screened. Experts agree that churches should make screening a standard practice for everyone either upon application, or in light of cost, after the initial interview or as a condition accompanying the job offer. In this way, no one is singled out, and everyone is aware of the process from the beginning. By having a process, sticking to it, and staying organized, a church has a better idea of whom they are working with and can make educated decisions when placing individuals in their particular roles.
Even when a church performs background checks, they might not dig deep enough. Both Johnston and Durie stress that a criminal background check as well as a sex offender check is absolutely essential for both volunteers and staff members. Durie goes on to say, "Database criminal searches are the norm for churches, but they are usually not enough due diligence and should always be accompanied by a county courthouse search or a state repository search."
Motor Vehicle records are another check that both Johnston and Durie recommend, especially when an applicant is being considered for an area where they transporting church members to and from events. Traffic violations and records will come to light and give the church staff a better idea of the safety record and history of the applicant.
Drug testing is yet another investigative tool that Johnston suggests as a must for employees and a good idea for volunteers. Both Johnston and Durie encourage an ID trace , which involves the Consumer Credit Bureau databases and will bring to light previous addresses and aliases when compared against the given social security number. Credit checks are especially essential when an applicant will be handling church funds.
And finally, there is the optional Employment Verification check and reference check. This is certainly not a must for a volunteer check, but is a good tool when hiring staff. This check helps determine an applicant's employment history and educational background, and in some cases, can help a church spot someone trying to find a position on staff with dishonest information.
Do Your Research
Both Durie and Johnston believe very strongly in the importance of background checks and encourage churches to implement them in the screening process. Churches should research what background information and databases are available to them as this can vary from region to region and state to state.
Johnston makes a final suggestion about choosing a company to handle your background check needs, "Be wary of database providers with unlimited or monthly deals. Don't shop just for price. If you choose to run database searches, take the extra step and compare database source lists between the companies you are looking at using. At the very least, compare the quality of the sources available in your general location." Due diligence on behalf of the church will help strengthen their ability to protect the congregants and provide a new level of confidence when working with new staff and volunteers.